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Americans Elect — the Centrists’ Hindenburg Goes Down


In the beginning, Americans Elect said its purpose was to "Break the gridlock and change politics as usual – No special interest. No agenda. Country before party." And now, two years and many post mortems later, there is plenty on why, after spending $35 million and
getting all the fawning publicity money could buy, they have called the whole thing off. I think most of the obits are off the mark

A couple of months ago I suggested that the third party internet candidacy process being fostered by Americans Elect might be called the Catfood Party because it seemed to suggest the same approach to vital social programs for seniors and people with disabilities as the much ballyhooed Simpson Bowles scheme. Activists had taken to calling the latter the Catfood Commission, in reference to the fact that many seniors succumb to eating pet food when their meager incomes are depleted.

My thinking was prompted by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's nomination of former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, a former senior executive at PWC auditing firm and currently the chief executive of something called the "Comeback America Initiative," to be Americans Elect's standard bearer. And what does Walker propose to do to "get "America's fiscal house in order"? You guessed it – "entitlement reform."

Walker, apparently a willing candidate, accuses the Democrats of being "still in denial about the need to renegotiate our social insurance contract" and complains that President Obama "is not talking about the fundamental reforms in Medicare and Medicaid that we need, and he is not ready to touch Social Security."

"We need to re-impose tough budget controls, constrain federal spending, decide which Bush tax cuts will stay, and engage in comprehensive reform of our entitlement, healthcare and tax systems," Walker wrote in 2008. "A bipartisan commission that would make recommendations for an up-or-down vote by Congress would be a positive step to making this a reality."

Since that time very little light has been thrown on the true aims of Americans Elect. Reportage and commentary has concentrated on the fact that some Wall Street heavy hitters were financing the operation, that the list of their names was being kept secret, and that those running the show reserved the right to ultimately overrule any choice the online voters might make.

One person is quite unhappy the Americans Elect gambit failed. "As a Clinton White House veteran who has touted the virtues of an independent candidacy to shake up the system, I'd like to clear up some confusion," wrote Washington Post columnist Matt Miller last week.
"The reason I've wanted an independent candidacy has nothing to do with faulting Democrats and Republicans equally. It has to do with changing the boundaries of debate."

What the Democrats are proposing "are not nearly equal to the challenges we face," wrote Miller.

"The renewal agenda we need partly involves reallocating public resources from outsized projected spending on programs serving seniors to big investments in the future – a reallocation Democrats won't pursue, or won't pursue on anything like the scale required,
because they're afraid of how elderly voters will react (and because they are reluctant to give up the political club that protecting current arrangements affords them)," wrote Miller.

"If you think we need to slow the growth of Medicare and other health-care spending substantially (by bringing it more in line with other advanced nations' per capita health spending), and use some of the savings to shrink tuition at public colleges to an affordable level (and not just save ten bucks a month on indebted students' interest costs, which is what we're debating today) – who's your candidate?" asked Walker, a co-host of public radio's "Left, Right & Center."

"Even if Americans Elect had gotten traction, there was no certainty that the ideas I'm sketching would have been given voice," wrote Miller. "But the right kind of independent candidacy could have been a platform to start explaining and building a constituency for the
new policies and trade-offs that an aging America in a global economy needs."

Miller says something he calls "the math of American renewal" requires that we "reallocate resources from projected outsized growth in programs serving seniors to future investments."

Miller's statement about healthcare spending is misleading to say the least. The problem is not the cost of Medicare and Medicaid; it's the cost of health care, which consistently increases faster than the cost of everything else. He's right that this differs from the situation in other "advanced" countries, but that is primarily because all them have some form of universal healthcare or a "single payer" Medicare type system that the rightwing and the self-proclaimed centrists oppose and which most Democrats are too cowardly to even propose.

Of course, the notion that the choice we have is either forcing people to work more years and cutting services to the elderly and disabled or making education affordable is both silly and outrageous.

One thing is becoming clear to me now. I have for some time been perplexed as to who some centrists who prattle on and on about the essential importance of education – about which there can be no denial – remain so quiet when school budgets are being slashed,
teachers laid off by the hundreds of thousands, and college tuition costs skyrocket. It is because they wish to hoodwink us into thinking that it's because resources are being sopped up by people over 60 years old.

The people behind Americans Elect are claiming that they folded their tent because the people they signed up on the net wouldn't support any candidate. Of those 2.5 million people who visited their website, only 5 percent are said to have indicated support for any
candidate. Libertarian/Republican Ron Paul got the most votes and former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer reportedly came second. One report I saw said Lady Gaga
actually got the most "delegate" votes – but that's probably an urban legend.

"So like many dreams, Americans Elect turned out to be too good to be true," said the San Francisco Chronicle in a rater sophomoric editorial last week. "Perhaps voters were suspicious of an enterprise that would not disclose the identity of all of its big donors," said
the paper. "Maybe some could not shake their fear that the third-party nominee could not win, but only serve as a spoiler. Or perhaps the group's many rules and caucus schedule struck participants as too complicated or too contrived."

Actually it was a faulty conception from the start.

It would take more information than I have to say definitively why Americans Elect went up in smoke. But my hunch is that people – especially the most motivated to explore such an option – are not inclined to support a party when they have no idea what is stands for, or
to name a candidate when they haven't the foggiest notion what the campaign's platform would be. Did anyone really think the supporters of Ron Paul would turn around and vote for Michael Bloomberg if the New York Mayor got the most votes in the Internet primary?

The best answer I found to the collapse of Americans Elect came from Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the liberal leaning Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

"The third-party fantasy is of a courageous political leader who could persuade Americans to support enlightened policies to tax carbon; reform entitlements; make critical investments in education, energy and infrastructure; and eliminate tax loopholes to raise needed revenue," they wrote in the Washington Post May 17.

"But there is simply no evidence that voters would flock to a straight-talking, independent, centrist third-party candidate espousing the ideas favored by most third-party enthusiasts. Consensus is not easily built around such issues, and differences in values and interests would not simply disappear in a nonpartisan, centrist haze."

The centrists have an idea they want to get across and, while scribes like Friedman and Miller sometimes let the cat out of the bag, the centrists usually don't want to spell it out. They prefer working in back rooms on some kind of "grand bargain" and presenting it to the
public as if there is no other choice. Flat earth Friedman spelled it out the other day: "It's because we're leaving an era of some 50 years' duration in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president was, on balance, to give things away to people; and we're entering an era – no one knows for how long – in which to be a president, a governor, a mayor or a college president will be, on balance, to take things away from people," he wrote.

Which is, of course, hogwash. But that's austerity, U.S. style. And it won't fly.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Carl Bloice is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He formerly worked for a healthcare union. 

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